How to Source Truly High-Quality Seeds

Seed experts and plant breeders help explain seed genetics, a complicated seed industry, and how to find high-quality seeds.

| December 2014/January 2015

After growing my own vegetables organically for 25 years, I recently hit a run of more than my usual share of garden flops. Were the crop failures my fault, or could I blame the weather? Had I been choosing the wrong seeds? I decided to investigate by interviewing multiple seed experts for my website, A Way to Garden, which led me down a path full of surprising discoveries. I’ve come to see, in a new light, that every successful and resilient garden starts with high-quality seeds that are matched to the garden’s growing conditions.

Seeds Are Alive

Think about it: How many other consumer sectors deliver living embryos by mail, or set them out on an in-store rack? Seeds are alive and they adapt, meaning they’re greatly influenced by the environment in which they were originally bred and the way each generation of seeds was produced. They evolve in response to their surroundings more than we realize. These adaptations are based on obvious factors, such as climate, but also on cultural factors, such as whether the seeds were given a diet of chemical fertilizers. As a result, packets from 10 different seed companies may list the same variety name on their covers, but what’s inside wasn’t necessarily created equal. A ‘Brandywine’ tomato isn’t a ‘Brandywine’ isn’t a ‘Brandywine.’

When seed shopping, therefore, your most important question should be, “Will this living thing feel at home in my garden?” Meaning: “What’s this particular seed adapted to?” But you can’t know that unless you know the original source of the seed, which, surprisingly, is often not its seller. Many companies are actually re-sellers and not plant breeders or even seed farmers. You need to know who bred the seed, as well as where and how.

Open-Pollinated Seed

With open-pollinated (OP) varieties, including heirlooms, careful seed sourcing is especially critical. Many gardeners like to save seed year to year, so they choose open-pollinated varieties that allow for that. An OP is “a living, breathing organism that, unlike a hybrid, is meant to evolve over time,” says Micaela Colley, executive director of Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), which fosters ethical seed stewardship and the revival of regional breeding. As long as pollen isn’t shared between different varieties within the same species, the resulting open-pollinated seed will remain true to type and will produce a next generation that looks mostly like its parent plant.

That’s not the case with hybrid varieties, which are created through deliberate crosses between two genetically distinct, homozygous (highly inbred) parents. This hybridization results in uniform plants with sought-after traits — disease resistance, for example. A hybrid plant’s seeds will not grow true to type, but will instead produce a next generation that expresses an unpredictable range of traits. That means, with hybrids, customers must purchase new seeds annually (again, because the plants’ offspring won’t resemble its parents). In about 1950, hybrids became popular with farmers, in part because of their uniformity. Imagine discovering, for the first time, commercially convenient, cost-saving traits, such as a field of onions or broccoli all ready for harvest at once. These desirable traits were quickly adopted, allowing for ever-bigger monocultures.

Open-pollinated seeds, by comparison, are loaded with potential variability and diversity, because their seed is produced by pollen flowing freely between all the genetically similar parents (as opposed to deliberate crosses, as in the production of hybrids). Thus, producing quality OP seed requires diligent management of each year’s seed crop: roguing out weaklings and individuals that veer off course, while also selecting for plants that show improved vigor or disease resistance. According to expert breeder and OSA co-founder John Navazio, who recently became manager of plant breeding at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine, if you don’t maintain OPs year in and year out, and re-select for the type you like and get rid of the plants that are obviously not adapted to your growing system, the varieties will slowly peter out through genetic drift.

1/30/2018 10:32:11 AM

Excellent article. I’m passing this on to our Grow Lab Seed Master Group in our Master Gardener Program of Riverside County, California. They will greatly benefit from this information. We just formed this group so that the members - many of whom are trainees and who will graduate in June will take a personal ownership in the seeds their sub-groups will be propagating, growing, nourishing and selling to benefit the Master Gardener Program of Riverside County. Debbra Corbin Euston

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